Prince Buster was a multifaceted fellow: not just the King of Ska, but also a producer, singer, soundsystem owner and boxer (Prince was his boxing nickname, and he converted to Islam after meeting Muhammad Ali). He was also a man who, as both producer and artist, led changes in Jamaican music. It was his introduction of the guitar chord on the afterbeat instead of the downbeat that gave birth to ska; he led the move to slowing down ska’s frantic pace into rocksteady; he was there when dub was born.
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It’s hard to pick just five songs from his incredible output – it means leaving out not just some of the lesser known songs that form the backbone of his work, but also the hits that gained a second wind with the UK ska movement. So no Madness, the song that gave the London group their name (and which they covered), or One Step Beyond, or Enjoy Yourself, the song the Specials still leave the stage to. But these five tell a story about Buster and his home, Jamaica.
Buster entered the music business working for and alongside the legendary producer Sir Coxsone Dodd, initially as a security guard, thanks to his reputation as a fighter. But he took the chance to learn all he could from his boss about making records, and after striking out on his own he demonstrated how well he had been trained, and how willing he was to challenge his former mentor. The spectacular Downbeat Burial, credited to Buster’s All Stars, doesn’t hide its target – Downbeat was Dodd’s own mighty soundsystem. The ska workout set a standard that would be hard for others to match.
Three Against One
Buster wasn’t afraid to let people know he was up for a fight. Three Against One, introduced with a skit framing the track as a bout in the ring, pits Buster – the underdog “voice of the people, the new heavyweight world champion” – in a fight with King Edwards the Giant, Duke Reid the Trojan and Sir Dodd. The song brings to life the reality of soundsystem competition back in the 60s, as Buster speaks of throwing punches at his opponents. “The harder the battle, the sweeter the victory,” he concludes, expressing his respect for his opponents, even if his win was inevitable.
Jamaica became independent on 6 August 1962: Buster’s rise to prominence in the early 1960s coincided with this political change and Jamaica’s first years as a nation. The music of the soundsystems, a distinctly Jamaican sound, was the soundtrack to the new nationhood, at least in ghettoes, if not in white Jamaica. Buster had another link to the independence movement: his middle name, Bustamante, was given to him in tribute to Alexander Bustamante, the Labour politician who became the country’s first post-independence prime minister. Two of Buster’s recordings celebrated independence, not least the instrumental bounce of August 1962, the B-side to the singalong Independence Song.
Hard Man Fe Dead
“You pick him up, you lick him down, him bounce right back,” sings Prince Buster on 1966’s Hard Man Fe Dead. The song is an ode to perseverance, but it’s also embedded in Jamaican culture and spirituality. His allusions to them make it hard not to see this tune as a musical representation of the island nation’s determination, a sung version of the patois saying “We likkle but talawah” – don’t underestimate; Jamaica is determined and refuses to ever give up.
Buster saw songs not just as statements, or as vehicles for boasting – they were also stories, where he could unfurl narratives to make a wider point. That was what he did on some of the most famous songs, such as Judge Dread, a satirical commentary on crime and the justice system that featured Buster in the role of the titular judge, and Ten Commandments of Man (whose 50-year-old list of instructions for any woman who might be interested in Buster is very much of its time: “Remember to kiss and caress me, honour and obey me … Seven days a week and twice on Sundays”). But there’s also Ghost Dance, which is a farewell to those who have departed – and assumes there are sound systems in the afterlife, of course. At the end of the tune, Buster says: “So long, sorry we had to go so soon. Since music is the food of love, I’ll forever sing on.” Indeed he will.
This article was written by Erin MacLeod, for theguardian.com on Friday 9th September 2016 11.41 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010